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‘How to Build an Igloo’ — a performance artist’s meditation on climate change

Andrea Miller’s work aims to recast the vast, global issues as a personal concern, something every individual has a stake in and some measure of responsibility to remedy.

Courtesy of Andrea Miller

This Saturday, in the confines of Susan Hensel Gallery, artist Andrea Miller will lay sod on the floor and don a white linen dress, draping herself with a heavy blanket made from interconnected lumps of coal.

An ice shelf will be mounted to the wall above her, atop which will be a glass vase filled with clear water. On a table next to her will be eyedroppers filled with pigment, dye that she’ll put into the water over the course of the afternoon, in increments of time determined by the respective impacts of various “carbon footprints” — based on her own estimated patterns of fossil fuel consumption, as well as the U.S. and global “carbon footprint” averages reported in current research.

As the day progresses, the ice mantle under which she’ll sit will melt, dripping into her heavy coal blanket; the water in the vase will become murkier. Eventually, both the shelf and vase will crash to the ground, and she’ll be sitting in a soggy, coal-blackened dress, surrounded by a pool of dirty water and broken glass.

Miller’s performance work, “How to Build an Igloo,” aims to recast the vast, global issues of climate change as a personal concern, something every individual has a stake in and some measure of responsibility to remedy.

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Miller says, “Through this work, I’m dealing with the human experience of disconnect we feel as we grapple with our awareness of the coming crisis: the personal guilt we feel for our part in climate change, and that sense of helpless waiting to see what will happen as a result.”

“We’re faced with such hard choices: How do we balance what we now know about our individual and collective impact on the environment with the standard of living we’ve gotten used to? How do we translate awareness into meaningful action, right here in Minneapolis, Minnesota?”

“How to Build an Igloo” is equal parts private ritual, public performance and gallery exhibition. After the performance piece has concluded, she’ll collect the remains of the event (the cloudy water, the coal blanket, her blackened white linen dress, eye-droppers, and performance paraphernalia) and, with those artifacts and video footage documenting the day’s efforts, Miller will create a multimedia installation that will be on view at Susan Hensel Gallery later this month.

Andrea Miller
Andrea Miller

I ask her about her approach – she’s also a painter; so, why tackle these issues via performance art?

Miller responds, “I think the unpredictability of a performance piece suits the nature of the problem of climate change. The artist can control everything that happens in a 2-D piece, but performance is more fluid – it’s nerve-wracking, actually. There are so many what-ifs – logistical problems to manage, changing variables having to do with materials and time. I don’t really know exactly how the performance will unfold, or even how long it will actually take.”

Miller goes on, “I feel like we’re still in the discovery phase about climate change: Most people are beginning to accept the scientific underpinnings of the environmental movement, but what we really know for sure is still in flux. We don’t even know how accurate the “carbon footprint” measurement really is; it’s difficult to really understand the details and scope of the problems we face, and I think fluid nature of this performance installation better expresses the evolving nature of what we know about climate change.”

She describes the project as a natural outgrowth of her background. “I work as an art consultant for the design and construction community. LEED certification and sustainability have become increasingly important factors among my clients as they consider future development projects.”

Interestingly, Miller admits, “The irony is, with all I know now about climate change, and as much as I’ve researched and thought about it, the more it’s become clear to me what my own impact is. I’m just like anyone else. In the course of preparing for ‘How to Build an Igloo,’ I’ve realized my own carbon footprint is actually bigger than the national average, largely because of all the traveling I’ve done.”

She says further, “As important as personal consumption is, it’s not enough to talk about an individual’s impact on the environment; we also have to consider the necessary cultural, business and political responses to these environmental changes. I want this project to be part of a larger dialogue about the big issues affecting all of us, as individuals and as global citizens.”

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After all, she says, “The more you know, the more you care.”

The public performance portion of “How to Build an Igloo” will take place from 2 to 5 p.m. Saturday at Susan Hensel Gallery in Minneapolis. The related multimedia exhibition will open Sept. 18 with a free, public reception from 7 to 9 p.m.